A hunting we will go!
Truffle hunting is a new adventure these enthusiastic novices are keen to share with you. So head up to Robbo to check out their truffiere and sniff what all the fuss is about.
Most of us might have felt slightly daunted at the prospect of taking over operations of a property that grew the largest truffle ever found in the Southern Highlands. But husband and wife team John Phizacklea and Samantha Appel have all the confidence of the young and feel anything but intimidated. Uninitiated as they were in the ways of the aromatic fungus, and new parents to baby Gracie, the former advertising and food industry workers are full of ideas how to continue and build upon their Robertson truffiere’s previous success.
‘You could say we have both been on very steep truffle learning curves over the past few months,’ says Appel, a new member of the Australian Truffle Growers Association. ‘But it’s something we are both very passionate about, and we see ourselves carving a great life and business here with the truffle growing and tours for ourselves and Gracie.’
Recently renamed Robertson Truffles, it was here in 2014 on the 85 hectare farm near Belmore Falls that the 1.172 kg Perigord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) was found under seven year old Ilex and Robur oak trees. With 375 host trees in eight rows, the farm also has some trees that produce Burgundy truffles (T. aestivum).
But more about that whopper truffle. The largest one found in Australia at that time, the precious fungus was such a monster it didn’t need the traditional sniffer dogs to unearth it, but reportedly broke the surface without assistance. (For some perspective, the world’s largest black truffle at that time weighed 1.31 kg and had been found near Buje in Croatia in 1999.) The Australian and Croatian delicacies have since both been upstaged by a 1.5 kg truffle found in Victoria’s Yarra Valley in 2016.
John’s parents, Peter and Jan, are the owners of Gourmet Grocer and International Foods, and bought Robertson Truffles early this year. On the hunt for a farm close to Sydney to share with their four children and eight grandchildren, they were unaware of the added bonus of truffles at first. They’d had in mind growing organic garlic but when they saw the truffle forest, it just fell into place.
The Southern Highlands truffle season begins at the start of June and runs until the end of August, says truffle expert and dog trainer Prue Church, who is helping the Phizacklea family in their new venture. From the NSW Northern Rivers, Church travels to the Highlands every year for the season with husband Alan. Their ‘noses’, much loved dogs Sirius, Peri and Caph, have been trained by Church in the art of detecting the truffles. The roots of the oak trees are infected with the truffle spores, and then hopefully grow on the roots of the trees, in turn omitting a strong odour which dogs can be trained to detect. The Churches and their working canine family will be at Robertson Truffles when their first tour of the 10-week truffle season kicks off on June 3.
‘Prue will be helping us with the truffle hunts during our first truffle season,’ says Appel. ‘She is teaching us and helping train Bella, our six month old Italian truffle dog. She’s a Lagotta Romagnolo breed.’
Appel and Phizacklea are also continuing to work with many of the local experience providers, such as Highlands Food & Wine Experiences and The Grape Escape. ‘And we have a corporate booking with WILDfest, who are bringing Porsche here for a private event,’ says Appel.
The family has recently added a function venue near their truffle orchard for visitors, and their tours will include refreshments on arrival, an information session, a truffiere visit and truffle dog demonstration. With hopes pinned on a harvest this year of 60-80 kg, they are also planning to plant some more oak trees, and have longer terms plans to collaborate with local dairy producers to make a truffle cheese for high end food outlets, and possibly a truffle honey to sell on site and locally.
The cold climate, pristine environment and rich red soil around Robertson are considered ideal for these underground treasures, which have a current market value of $2800-$3500 per kg.
Appel and Phizacklea are hoping for local and overseas sales to chefs and restaurants, and are planning a trip to France between the Australian and European truffle seasons to see how the French do it. But for now, says Appel, it’s all hands on deck getting ready for this year’s truffle hunt season.
Truffles are mysterious mushroom like fungi that grow underground.
They rely on the strong pungent scents of their fruits to ensure animals dig them up and spread their spores.
*In Australia, truffles are grown in NSW, ACT, Victoria, in the south of Western Australia and Tasmania, where the first plantations were developed in the early 1990s.
Truffles grow on trees whose roots have been inoculated with truffle spores and on average take five to seven years to produce.
Tuber melanosporum is the French Black, aka Perigord, truffle sought after by chefs. The White Truffle (T. magnatum) is the king of all truffles, fetching the highest prices, but is not widely available.
Australia is currently the fourth largest truffle producer after France, Italy and Spain.*
Local farming family, the Olssons owners of Olssons Industries which produces livestock nutrition and salt feed blocks and high end gourmet sea salt products, make a fine Truffle Salt. Harvested from salt from the family’s South Australian salt pans, the Olsson are also in the process of growing truffles on their Moss Vale property. They have hopes to harvest their first crop this year.
*Information thanks to the Australian Truffle Growers Association